It begins like many other games — the adversary appears, snatches your girl, and runs away laughing. You raise your fist to the sky, and vow to get her back. This time though, you’re not a sword-wielding hero or a manic plumber. You’re a small brown spaceship. Your girl is a pink spaceship. And the adversary is, of course, a giant floating eyeball spaceship. So begins Nimbus, a 2D puzzle-racing game from Swedish indie developers Noumenon available on Steam.
In the game, you have to fly your spaceship past spiky traps and solve physics-based puzzles to reach the end of the level as quickly as possible. While you’re free to take the level at your own pace, the faster you complete the stage, the higher you’ll be ranked on the game’s leaderboards so if you’re at all competitive you’re likely to take the course at breakneck speed. This requires quick reflexes and often quite a few retries, but the levels are well-balanced and checkpoints are frequent, so it tends to be an addictive rather than frustrating experience. The solid gameplay is well served by the cheerful graphics and fitting retro soundtrack, making Nimbus a fun game that’s hard to put down.
The title’s chief gameplay mechanic is a simple one – that of gravity. As your spaceship doesn’t have engines you have to glide from place to place, gaining speed from boost sections, bouncy walls and other environmental elements. Your craft accelerates as it swoops downward and decelerates as it pulls up, as you would expect. You can also deploy air brakes to slow your ship down and move more precisely. If you slow down too much or hit spikes scattered throughout the level, you’ll have to restart at the last checkpoint.
From these basic rules, the game begins to take shape. As in Portal, the game starts slow and relies on its charm and creatively designed aesthetics to amuse, but as more gameplay elements are introduced the levels become far more interesting. As each new mechanic is introduced, from moveable balls to black holes, the game tests your understanding gradually. The game rewards students who persevere through carefully placed gold coins, which unlock new graphics for your spaceship and its light trail. Additionally, there are secret finishing lines to look for, which unlock even more levels in the game. While the game can be beaten in about three hours, these hidden items and the thrill of the leaderboard make you want to keep playing for much longer.
The game has a very retro feel, much like indie darling Braid. As in Jonathan Blow’s classic, the simple controls and core mechanics belie a rich and rewarding gameplay experience and retro references abound. The cheap and cheerful levels look like they’ve been plucked straight from Sonic and there’s even Super Mario Brothers style overworld map that track your progress. Level elements are often old school classics, from colored keys originally found in early PC shooters to the ubiquitous spiky floors from many a platformer. Even the title’s downtempo electronic music, composed by Swedish artist Carl Karjalainen, has a distinctive retro sound. It all adds up to well-crafted package, and one that shows the true strength of independent game development — while triple A titles may lead the sales charts, buoyed by million dollar marketing campaigns and the latest graphics, indie titles like Nimbus can rely on simple and well-crafted core mechanics wrapped in a friendly look and feel to produce a game that’s just as fun at a fraction of the cost.